Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Whose side are you on?

Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue. - Robert Wright

I have been in arguments on the internet (I can quit any time I like, I swear) in which I have spent a long time vehemently disagreeing with the other participants on the topic at hand, but then have agreed completely with them when the inevitable digression surfaces; when the argument on a carbon tax turns into an argument on nuclear power, for example.

This tends to surprise the shit out of your average bogan commenter, because to them, argument is war. You have a side, and I have a side, and we square off. We can use different tactics to achieve victory, but at no point do we concede defeat; I must argue that everything you say is wrong, even if I begin to realise that you’re right.

So when I concede points, they get surprised, but recover quickly because they see it as a small victory (note that it usually isn’t - it’s usually that they’ve falsely packaged the second, separate argument with the first, but that’s a topic for another day). Who really gets surprised, though, are the people who originally agreed with me. When they spout off a false statistic that supports my argument, and I know it’s false, I tend to point it out. The response to this tends to be along the lines of “Whose side are you on?”

Similarly, I have a small number of friends who I’m very close with, who are like brothers to me. They’re generally pretty upstanding people, but, being human, they do fuck up from time to time. I don’t want to air any details here, but suffice to say there have been some times when they have done things that made me extremely angry with them. Times when they have wronged a mutual friend, and so on.

And in those instances, or at least those instances where I’ve had the courage to voice what I was thinking, I have called them on it. I have told them that they’re being cockheads, and that they need to stop it. And it’s not always, but the response is often the same - “Don’t you have any loyalty? Aren’t you going to stick up for me? Whose side are you on?”

This is it, ladies and gents. This is the biggest point I can make. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to the people in my life for as long as I can remember.

I’m not on anybody’s side. There are no sides.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am loyal, in the sense that I will always forgive my friends for their cock-ups - as they have done for me on any number of occasions. I will defend their interests as best I can, even sometimes when those interests conflict with my own. There are forms of loyalty that are worthwhile, and I’m not suggesting anyone throw away a time-honoured friendship on the basis of a simple disagreement - far from it.

But nonetheless, if you are wrong, you’re going to hear about it. Whether it’s a moral decision you made, or a factual point in a debate, my relationship to you does not affect the truth. That is not an argumentative crutch that is going to work, ever.

Furthermore, no cause is important enough to be above this standard. I don’t care if your argument is going to convince your opponent that gay marriage should be legal - if it’s based on bullshit, I’m going to say so, however strongly I might agree with your goals.

The other side of this coin is that you have to be open to changing your mind. There’s no point avoiding all the traps of picking a side, if you then create a rigid Side of One. In this context, you aren’t a side either; so if one of your beliefs is looking like it’s been proven false, discard it.

I know it feels like conceding the point undermines you, but unless you’re participating in a televised debate, nobody cares - and you have the enormous advantage of being able to move forward into the future with the right information. Never underestimate this - in admitting you were wrong, in discarding your cherished belief, you are not making yourself weaker, you’re making yourself stronger. In the grand scheme of things, accuracy far outweighs perceived credibility.

It’s funny that both sides of this coin come from a childish need to be right. Well, I say, “need to be right”, because that’s the phrase used when talking about obstinate teens (a charge often levelled at me a lot as a teenager - and rightfully so).

But it’s really a need to be perceived as right - an insecurity that values what people think of you much more highly than really being intelligent. You’re better off with an actual need to be right - a thirst for the truth that overpowers your pride, that allows you to concede small losses so that you can win the war.

Because at the end of the day, if you never change your mind, you can never get any smarter - so how right can you possibly be?

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